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Writers of the Golden State

By John Ahouse

The literature collections at the University of Southern California have the age but nothing like the depth or extent of those of certain other institutions in our area. Moreover, an astonishing number of different individuals have held responsibility for them, leading to an overall picture of slow and no-growth covering many years. The inception was ambitious enough. In 1939, the USC Library Council embarked on the formation of an American Literature Library by purchasing, through Dawson’s Book Shop, several of the book and ephemera collections assembled by Willard Morse of Santa Monica, who had been something of a completist where Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, and William Dean Howells were concerned. For the inaugural ceremony, they obtained the services of Hamlin Garland, then resident in Los Angeles, and a frequent lecturer in the USC English Department. Garland used the opportunity to praise his mentor, Howells, one final time, and also to express the hope that USC’s library would not fail to collect Western and specifically California writers. More about Garland later, but in fulfillment of his wish, USC later added not only Garland’s papers and personal library but substantial collections of California writers from Jack London to the Beat movement.  

I will describe just three of our California collections, because they interlock in a way, and could, each of them, support considerable research into the first half of the 20th century.  

Rupert Hughes 
Was there ever a writer’s writer like Rupert Hughes? Novelist, song composer, historian, biographer, screenwriter and director: he did it all. In his elaborate Hollywood home with its Arabian Nights décor, he had a study large enough for four writing desks, each of which supported a different project at any given time. For years he was on tap as a toastmaster and after-dinner speaker and for a time had a radio slot in the 1930s. In the 50s, when he was over 70 years of age, he even had a go at local television. As president of the Hollywood Authors Club for thirty years, Hughes knew everyone who wielded a pen or typewriter anywhere on the West Coast.  
Considering that Rupert Hughes was still a force to be reckoned with in the 1940s and 1950s, even to “naming names” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, it is astonishing to realize he had been the author of a long-running Broadway play, “The Bridge,” as early as 1909, or that his famous “Miss 318,” which began life as a story in the Saturday Evening Post, became a play and finally a film, dates from 1913 in its earliest version. His greatest screenwriting activity belongs to the 1920s, under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, when more than fifty motion pictures were made from his novels and stories; but his Music Lover’s Cyclopedia, a classical music handbook that went through many editions in his lifetime, had first appeared before 1914.  

Covering all his years of unremitting activity, Rupert Hughes kept files of his multitudinous drafts and scripts. He wrote exclusively in longhand; unfortunately he destroyed most of his true manuscripts in the late 1940s when moving to a smaller home. What remained, voluminous enough, were his typed revisions, research files, and fair copies, much correspondence, and some unfinished projects. Among the latter are the opening chapters of a final volume in his biography of George Washington, a work that consumed his later years. Following his death in 1956, his papers were organized by his sister-in-law, appraised by Dawson’s, and came to the University of Southern California though the good offices of a member of the Friends of the Library. The collection has supported one biography of the man, by James Kemm, which appeared four years ago. Much more could be done, in my view, especially in regard to his work in films. Where a given story exists both as original prose fiction and as a screenplay there is an opportunity for a rewarding analysis of the book-to-film process in the silent days.  

And, if you are wondering: Hughes also kept a folder on his scapegrace nephew Howard, whose early shenanigans brought mostly heartache to his uncle Rupert.  

Ruth LePrade and the "Poets Garden" 
Rupert Hughes started out in Iowa, grew up in Missouri, and lived in New York City till the film industry drew him to Los Angeles in the early 20s. The subject of the second collection, Ruth LePrade, was a Californian by birth who appears to have spent her entire adult life in the Los Angeles area. One place you will run across Ruth’s name is as editor and compiler of a book of verse and testimonials called Debs and the Poets published in 1921 by Upton Sinclair in a bid to call attention to the incarceration of labor leader Eugene Debs, for supposed incitement to disloyalty during the First World War. This was a cause celèbre that had gone round the world; Sinclair was certainly a known entity; but who was Ruth LePrade? Go back a few years to 1915 and you would have found her featured in the L.A. Evening Herald as a poet prodigy, a high schooler who had emerged from under the wing of Edwin Markham, the then-famous West Coast author of “The Man with the Hoe,” who early in the century was sometimes called a second Whitman. “Bard Pays Tribute to Pupil’s Poems,” reads the headline; and a dual photograph of the two is captioned, “Author and Literary Marvel for Whom He Predicts Brilliant Future.” Born near Modesto, Ruth blazed to quick fame on the strength of a few proto-feminist prose poems and Edwin Markham’s endorsement -- probably much too soon for her own good – or limited talents. Her biographer says she went from creative writer to anthologist to collector in a matter of a few short years. The Debs book already shows her at the anthologist phase; and it was not long before her life’s work focused on her principal creation, called “The Poets Garden.” What was this? Person, place or thing? At a minimum, it is a fact that members of Ruth’s circle of women friends gathered at her home and in her garden on Spaulding Avenue for discussions of social reform, civil rights, aesthetics, religious patriotism, as well as afternoons of poetry, music, dramatic playlets.  

The USC library owns some fifty boxes of “The Poets Garden “ papers as turned over by Miss LePrade in increments beginning in 1953, but the question remains whether “Poets Garden” was a person (Miss LePrade), a place (her home near Beverly Hills), or whether it was primarily what we would now call a High Concept and a form of strength-or-unity-in-purpose for those who took part.  

This last is the view taken by LePrade’s biographer in a dissertation completed at USC in 1992 and based on researching the Poets Garden Collection. To appreciate any aspects of what Ruth and her friends were engaged in means understanding the literal sense of nurturing implied by the group’s name. At the same time it means cutting through their sentimentalized veneration of Edwin Markham, for example, whose birthday in April, coinciding with Shakespeare’s on the 23rd, was the subject of annual rituals, from poetry readings to tree plantings, in order to see the “Garden” both as a linear descendent of 19th Century women’s reading circles and as a form of 20th century feminist empowerment. One of our senior librarians at USC, who has given her entire working life to the institution, recalls the final bloom of the “Poets Garden” from when she was a library school student and an intern at Doheny Library in the 1960s. She and fellow students would be corralled to enlarge the audience on Markham’s birthday, the celebration of which had now moved from Spaulding Avenue to a grove of trees on the USC campus. “Some very short ladies in togas and laurel crowns descending the front steps of the library” is how it has stayed in her mind, easy to ridicule but perhaps not quite so ridiculous after all.  

The annual celebration outlived Miss LePrade by some 15 years, veering toward styles and forms of poetry she might not willingly have acknowledged. Jerome Rothenberg in 1982, Clayton Eshleman in 1981, Diane Di Prima in 1977, Black Poets from Watts in 1972, Charles Bukowski in 1971, were some of the latter-day visitors to the virtual Garden, the last celebration having been held in 1985 with the University’s own James Ragan as guest. This evolution in itself, from Markham and John Masefield at its inception to the avant-garde in later years, would make an interesting study. Meanwhile, the “Poets Garden” collection, meticulously inventoried by Miss LePrade on over 200 sheets of foolscap, would support research on Markham, of course, (every scrap was saved) and on Eugene Debs, as well as on other women whose lives were touched by her, such as Faith Chevaillier, the so-called “angel of the prisons,” or Kate Crane-Gartz, the plumbing heiress, who supported the Debs project, or of Ruth’s long-time co-gardener, Florence Henderson. In a letter in our files, written in 1967, two years before her death, Miss LePrade remonstrates with an early predecessor of mine for not having done more with her collection. Just what this “more” entailed is not clear, but with her death a final consignment arrived from “The Poets Garden,” and the whole could prove a trove for future research.  

Hamlin Garland 
Miss LePrade seems to have been brought into the USC orbit by none other than the University President himself, Rufus von KleinSmid, who was highly pro-active where the library was concerned. He comes into the story of our third collection as well, the library and papers of a true transplant, the “Son of the Middle Border” himself, Hamlin Garland, known for his first-hand narratives of country life in the Upper Mid-West. After assuring his friends and readers in the late1920s that he was “back trailing” to the East Coast to live out his days, Garland changed direction to move with Mrs. Garland across the continent to be close to their two married daughters and first grandchild in Los Angeles. Hamlin’s unpublished memoirs of this last chapter of his life, in four versions from manuscript to heavily corrected typed draft, to a fair copy and a final reading he had hoped to see published, make up one of the high-spots of the American Literature Collection, showing the elderly gentleman renewing himself in the eternal summer of Southern California. You can read about his visits to Hollywood Bowl, the Padua Players, the 1932 Olympics, the Mission Play, the William Andrews Clark Library, and the Griffith Park observatory. Among celebrities he encountered and wrote about, we find Robert Frost, Edwin Markham, Harry Chandler, Zane Grey, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, the pioneer aviator Mrs. Elizabeth McQueen, and Will Rogers.  

A close and candid observer of himself, Hamlin Garland was aware of his declining energies as the decade moved onward. For all that, however, his relationship to USC was deepening. As early as 1932 Garland had been initiated into Phi Epsilon Phi, the honorary English fraternity, and had addressed a luncheon meeting with faculty. On this occasion, he was seated with University President von KleinSmid, who then showed him “the noble library given by Doheny the oil man, a magnificent home for books,” in Garland’s words. Which of the two was picturing that the Hamlin Garland Collection would one day reside there? The author also formed a collegial and productive friendship with a USC professor having the unlikely name of Garland Greever, a specialist in the Civil War poetry of Sidney Lanier. This led to frequent guest lectures in front of students in the English department for whom the elderly Garland was a living link to Whitman, to Twain, to Howells, to Stephen Crane, and to Henry James. From USC he received an honorary Doctor of Letters in November of 1935, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa the following spring. The university library exhibited his books and memorabilia in 1936; and in 1939 Garland was invited to inaugurate their new collection of American literature. This gave him an opportunity to call for the building of strength in Western authors, while USC clearly continued to groom Garland for the possible gift of his own library.  

Everyone in libraries knows cases of the reluctant donor who requires frequent massage and encouragement. If Garland hesitated to take this final step, it was due to his lingering loyalties to Eastern institutions, up to and including the Library of Congress, and a belief that his collection belonged closer to the soil that had given it birth. At times he drifted to the opposite extreme of threatening to burn his papers, believing that no one would value them. This drew a sharp rebuke from critic Van Wyck Brooks, who assured him, “In another thirty years your life will stand for a whole phase of American history.” Garland dithered and delayed, finally leaving the decision to Mrs. Garland. In the new year of 1940, in a note from the collection dated February 27th, Garland Greever was turning once again to his namesake with a request to speak before one of his classes.  

“Is 8 o’clock in the morning too early an hour for you to speak to my class in American Literature? After next week, I’d like immensely for you to speak on two topics during that period: 1) your acquaintance with Whitman, 2) the poetic art and musical theories of Lanier. The students will just have finished their study of these two writers, and will be in a position to appreciate your comments on them. Wednesday, March 13, would be an ideal day from our standpoint.”  

But it was not to be. On Friday, March 1st, Garland suffered a stroke in his sleep, and died three days later with his wife and both daughters present at his bedside. His collection of books and a lifetime of correspondence went to USC six months later. Unlike the Hughes and LePrade collections, however, which were pre-digested on arrival, the vast assemblage of Garland papers, which the university had had its eye on for a decade, consumed the labors of two professors and a librarian before they could go public almost twenty years later.  

And how do they interlock, these three collections? Well, Rupert Hughes knew everyone, though maybe not Ruth LePrade. Only her diaries would tell for sure. Hughes certainly knew Hamlin Garland and Garland knew him. When Garland built a house to his own specifications on coming to Los Angeles, he made sure to include a proper study for his library and writing desk. “There,” he wrote in his journal, “I’ve finally got the study I’ve always wanted,” or words to that effect. “It’s not as big as Rupert Hughes’, but it’s just right for me.” But both men certainly knew Edwin Markham, who turns out to be the common denominator among this troika of collections. Garland in his journal tells of attending a chaotic dinner in the mid-thirties where he is seated next to Markham, the Guest of Honor, who rambles on precariously. Whether Miss LePrade was present at the dinner or not, there is no question that Markham would have visited the house on Spaulding within a day or two as he invariably did when in Los Angeles, to sit upon the “Poet’s Chair,” to read his verse aloud, and luxuriate in the adulation of “The Poets Garden.”

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   Last updated:  September 23, 2008 | Send comments & questions to | © 2001 University of Southern California